Responding to the Storm: How Iowa Utilities Reacted to the Derecho
October 8, 2021 | Responding to the Storm: How Iowa Utilities Reacted to the Derecho
Iowa lost 89,000 acres of tree canopy, or 25% of its forest land in the storm. The derecho uprooted trees, snapped major tree limbs and toppled trees onto houses and other buildings. Trees and limbs were left tangled in electrical lines. Trees and major branches blocked roadways throughout the storm’s wake. Not only was the storm fast and furious, cleanup was particularly difficult. Hundreds of thousands of people were left without power for days, some for nearly two weeks, as crews worked to remove tree limbs and live power lines from neighborhoods.
Typically, Iowa’s utilities are well versed in responding to natural disasters and major weather events. These companies have decades of experience in restoring power and have thorough protocols in place when extreme events take place. The derecho tested these systems, as there was so little warning and the storm created severe damage across such a wide swath of the state. Alliant Energy, Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO) and MidAmerican Energy had hundreds of employees on the ground throughout the state, along with thousands of mutual aid workers, tasked with restoring power to homes and businesses. Officials at the three utilities recently talked about how they respond to these events and what they learned from the derecho.
RESPONDING TO STORMS
Each utility has a plan in place to handle power outages from major weather and related events. For Alliant, 341 communities the utility company serves were affected. After the derecho, more than 3,600 poles were replaced, which would typically take 10 months of work. The company also replaced 6 million feet, or 1,200 miles, of wire for the more than 250,000 customers across Iowa without power.
“We are always ready to respond to any major weather event or disaster that impacts our customers or the communities we serve,” said Terry Kouba, senior vice president at Alliant Energy and president of the Iowa Utility Co. “At Alliant Energy, our purpose is to serve customers and build stronger communities. And that purpose guides our work every day. Immediately after a storm hits, our entire team jumps into action, assessing the damage and working to restore power as quickly and safely as possible.”
Prioritizing recovery work and breaking down the response into smaller pieces helps utilities restore power more quickly, said Dan Burns, vice president for utility operations at CIPCO.
“Prompt action is vital to securing the system. CIPCO immediately sectionalizes the system in order restore offline substations as quickly as possible,” Burns said. “This allows power to be rerouted from damaged stations and restore power quickly to some areas. Following this, CIPCO performs a systemwide damage assessment. It is critical to know exactly what you are dealing with as soon as possible.”
More than 290,000 MidAmerican Energy customers, or 60% of the utility company’s customer base, were without power after the derecho, said Kathryn Kunert, MidAmerican’s vice president of community relations and economic development. There were also 1,500 gas leaks for MidAmerican to fix.
“MidAmerican Energy has protocols that are established. Weather events are not unique or different to MidAmerican Energy, unfortunately, and we've gotten very good at weather responses or incident responses,” she said. “It goes with the territory when you live in a four-season climate. I think what was unique about this one is the mere fact that typically with a tornado or a blizzard, it hits one spot, and you then have the opportunity to pull your resources in from the other areas within your service territory that were not affected by the storm. And that's what was really unique about the derecho is that it just kept building up steam and it came across our entire service territory.”
MUTUAL AID ASSISTANCE
In the aftermath of the derecho, there weren’t enough workers to remove debris and restore power because such a large territory, including neighboring states, experienced damage and outages. Utility companies relied on mutual aid assistance, calling in workers from other areas of the country to help with the damage.
MidAmerican had more than 2,500 workers from 24 states responding to the damage.
“It truly had a huge impact. While we're really good at disaster response and we've got a great plan and great protocols put in place, it really forced us to think outside the box, obviously, and then to really gauge and engage resources that were not here,” Kunert said.
CIPCO also looked outside its service territory for help with power restoration and damage response. Burns said responding to the derecho required 10 times the inventory the company typically has on hand for disaster response.
“In the case of the derecho, the damage turned out to be well beyond our ability to deal with it in a timely fashion with just our own crews,” Burns said. “Mutual aid assistance
was called in as soon as we knew we needed more help. As soon as the damage reports start coming in, materials for the repairs needed to be determined and located.”
Alliant called upon thousands of utility workers from 35 companies across the United States and Canada to help restore power.
“Following the derecho, we immediately knew this was an unprecedented storm and the restoration would be unlike any other we’ve experienced,” Kouba said.
“During major events, we can receive mutual assistance from other utilities like we did after the derecho. This partnership enables energy companies to increase the size of their workforce by borrowing workers and equipment. We send our crews to help with emergencies in other parts of the country too. Recently, our crews traveled to Louisiana following Hurricane Ida.”
Iowa’s utility companies were in constant communication with local, county and state governments and emergency management teams, as well as media, customers and other groups, throughout and after the storm. Alliant also had a constant presence at Iowa’s State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston.
“Communication with the communities we serve is extremely important,” Kouba said. “We communicate with our customers and coordinate our efforts with community and state leaders, as well as local emergency management. After the derecho, we participated in daily press conferences in order to update communities and customers on the restoration efforts.”
CIPCO was also working in partnership with other utility companies to prioritize repairs.
“Communications with the operations staff from our member distribution co-ops and our transmission partners was critical and nearly continuous over the next two weeks,” Burns said. “All the electrical systems are interconnected and affect each other. We needed to make sure we were working in tight coordination so one utility wasn’t wasting time working on a system that another utility had as a low priority. Work plans had to be tightly coordinated to speed the restoration. These communication efforts were very difficult, especially early on, because the storm also took out cellular and radio systems used to communicate throughout the system. Sometimes, only text messaging worked.”
MidAmerican works with several emergency management coordination teams and communicates to media and residential customers, as well as the business community, Kunert said. MidAmerican business customers can access real-time outage restoration alerts through their online account, for example.
“We have communications that we send both directly through our employees that are assigned to our large customer accounts, as well as we use a lot of email communications, and then all of the other communications that are at our fingertips,” she said. “So we use all of the media channels that you can imagine, both mainstream media through press releases, on-air interviews or oncamera interviews. We use social media channels, we use our websites. We are hands-on and we have employee teams at the key account and business account level that have direct contact with our customers, as well.”
While Iowa’s utility companies have in place sophisticated storm response policies and procedures, they have made updates and alterations to those procedures since the derecho. For example, CIPCO now uses drones to examine storm sites and to help locate fallen branches and other obstacles to power restoration, Burns said.
The company also created a GPS app that helps utilities determine which power lines are theirs.
“One of the difficulties was broken poles blocking roads, making it very difficult to assess damage, especially in hilly areas where sight distance was limited. We now have three drones that can be used to fly damaged lines, which allows us to assess the damage much quicker,” Burns said. “We are owners in a heavily integrated transmission system with an investor-owned utility, and the line ownership changes very frequently. You can’t always tell by looking at the line which company owns it, so another bottleneck was having enough staff with adequate system knowledge to be able to determine what damage was actually ours. CIPCO now has a phone app with GPS positioning that makes it possible for nearly any employee to run the lines and know precisely which lines are ours, and they are able to make pinpoint damage comments directly within the app. During the derecho, we had many employees that wanted to help, but most of them didn’t have enough background. The app now allows just about any able-bodied employee to assist us with damage assessments in the future.”
One of the greatest challenges of the derecho was the lack of communication, due to internet and other outages.
“Radio communications was not only difficult due to damage, but due to having different radio systems that wouldn’t talk to each other even if there wasn’t any infrastructure damage from the storm,” Burns said. “We now have consolidated our network and we have radio equipment on order that will be able to talk with any other radio on our system regardless of where they are located within the state of Iowa. We are piggybacking on a very robust, damage-resistant radio system owned and operated by the state of Iowa that is used by emergency responders, such as the Iowa State Patrol. Their system did not go down in the derecho, and had we had these radios back then, communications wouldn’t have been an issue.”
CIPCO also created a fleet of pallet-based storm crates where they store special hardware that is ready to go on a moment’s notice and can quickly be loaded onto a truck by a forklift, he said.
Alliant is working to increase its underground lines to help reduce the number of weather-related outages, Kouba said. The company also uses smart meters that allow the company to communicate remotely with the meters to help detect outages more quickly.
“Every storm is different and poses unique challenges,” Kouba said. “We continue to learn from every storm we experience. We’ll continue to be prepared for the next major stressor on the system.”
Following the derecho, MidAmerican decided to improve communication efforts and direct nontechnical employees to help with storm response.
“With every disaster or even a simple incident, we do a very thorough and intensive lessons learned. And with every storm, as good as we are, we always have the opportunity to learn new things,” Kunert said. “Some of those things we've incorporated now into our processes are using the personnel and our employees that aren't doing hands-on work, asking them to step in and support and provide assistance where needed. The other thing that we learned is, you cannot communicate enough, absolutely cannot communicate enough. I'm very proud of the work that we did there because we created new, real-time ways to communicate with customers and we're actively and proactively out there in front of it.”
Each of the utility companies sent hundreds of employees to the derecho disaster sites to help local communities recover from the damage. After the storm, Alliant created Project ReConnect to help customers who needed financial assistance to pay for needed electrical repairs so power could be restored. Approximately $315,000 in funds were available from Alliant’s foundation.
“Working with our nonprofit partners, we helped to provide food throughout impacted communities. Many of our employees volunteered countless hours by delivering food and assisting neighbors in communities,” Kouba said.